By Martin Popoff
U.K. first-wave neo-proggers Marillion have been provoking progressive thought for well on 35 years now, but the band’s latest album, “F.E.A.R.” — which stands for F*** Everyone and Run — just might be their Pink Floyd-large statement on the state of the union, the union being the whole wide world.
“I think he’s just a grumpy old man,” said keyboardist Mark Kelly, laughing. Kelly was referring to the band’s lyricist and vocalist Steve Hogarth, who replaced the enigmatic Fish in 1989 and is still compared to the beast-man in hot-under-the-collar Marillion debating circles.
“No, seriously, well, there’s a lot to be bothered about isn’t there, really?” Kelly continued, referencing the past election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “The weird thing about this whole album is that it was conceived and written over the last three years. A lot of the lyrics were written probably two or three years ago, and Steve had had this sort of, I wouldn’t say premonition, but this feeling that things are not going very well. He sat there in his little English country garden, his walled garden, it’s a nice summer’s day, and he said, ‘I don’t feel right. Something bad is happening. Something’s coming. There’s an impending storm.’ And that was sort of the beginning of the lyrics to ‘El Dorado,’ which is the opening track on the album.
“Before then, we had the financial crisis of 2008,” continued Kelly, a bit of a financial maven himself, having pioneered the idea of crowd-funding for bands, a key pillar of Marillion’s mass and yet cult success. “And since then we’ve had Brexit, as they call it, where we’ve left the EU. We’ve got Syrian refugees swarming across Europe and … I shouldn’t use that expression swarming because that got David Cameron into a lot of trouble. But we got a situation where people aren’t happy, and the rise of the far right in Europe is really worrying. In France, they have Marie Le Pen who … she’s just a little bit left of Hitler, you know? And it’s a s***-storm out there, and there’s a lot of things to be worried about. And I think that was what he was getting at a few years ago when he started writing the lyrics. And, you know, ‘The New Kings’ (the last of essentially three “suites” of songs that make up “F.E.A.R.”) goes back to that financial crisis and what’s happened since, where the money seems to be fine and everybody else is a case of f*** everyone and run — that’s where the title came from. I mean, our democracy’s being compromised by big tech companies. There’s so much to complain about, really. Maybe it’s a sign of our age; maybe it’s a sign of the times.”
The sense of doom in Hogarth’s lyrics is supported by the music, which, again, finds Marillion building upon a legacy hard-built through the Hogarth era, of progressive rock built on mood and texture and melody, rather than odd time signatures and instrumental virtuosity. Once more, it’s Pink Floyd that comes to mind, even solo Roger Waters.
Asked if the hiring of Hogarth marked the ascent of the quiet Marillion as a replacement for the Genesis-like Marillion of 1982 to 1988, drummer Ian Mosley said, “I don’t know if there really was a change because I never really quite understood the prog rock tag. For me personally, I like to play music in kind of a classical way, where you have movements. You’re not restricted to playing two- and three-minute songs. In the earlier days, the beginning of the band, a lot of people thought we were a Scottish heavy metal band! And then we got the prog label, although I still don’t quite understand it. Sometimes prog conjures up the wrong images for me — Stonehenge and dancing gnomes and fairytales and whatnot. And that’s not my idea of prog. So I don’t know how we got that label. I suppose, on the other hand, a new wave of progressive music is coming through, with people like Steven Wilson. There’s a lot of very good young bands coming up and that’s really encouraging. We’ll go with any label.”
“The music that we make is driven by two things,” added Kelly. “We try and write music that we like. We jam and come up with musical ideas. One of the big definitions of progressive music, I suppose, is long songs. And the reason why our songs are long is that Steve writes long lyrics — it’s as simple as that. But I get what you’re saying. There’s a certain style of prog music that’s all about the chops; it’s all about how many notes you can play and how fast you can play them. We like music that moves people. We try to make music that makes people feel something. We try to make music that complements the lyrics. And if that ends up being a 20-minute song, well, then that’s what it is. But, you know, to be honest, we’re not good enough to play that really fast, really complicated music that bands from the early ‘70s play, or Dream Theater or whatever. Well, certainly I’m not (laughs).”
“In the initial instance when Steve joined the band, about 90% of the music was written already, so Steve came in and just sang on what we had,” recalled Mosley, referring to Hogarth’s first album with the band, “Seasons End.” “And Steve asked, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And our brief … we said, ‘Steve, just do whatever you want. And don’t sing on — apart from the older material — what you don’t feel comfortable with, and what you can’t put your heart and soul into.’ So that’s kind of what we did. But the difference with Steve is, he plays keyboards as well — he’s a great piano player. So when he joined, that added another dimension to the band. He’s very different to Mark Kelly. Mark is strictly a kind of synth player, really. And we struggled on the second album, with Steve Hogarth. Because suddenly we had a blank canvas, and it was right, write an album, what are we going to do? Because it was all very new to us it was quite a frustrating time. That was the ‘Holidays in Eden’ album. And then the third album, that’s when I felt that we’d come together and that we were all travelling down the same road, and ‘Brave’ was a great album.”
And so is “F.E.A.R.,” although it is indeed very dark, as fans will hopefully get to experience in a live setting.